It's surprisingly quiet during lunchtime at Jackson Elementary School's campus garden.

It's surprisingly quiet during lunchtime at Jackson Elementary School's campus garden.

Here, kids no taller than fully grown tomato plants are patiently waiting their turn to pick sun-ripened vegetables that are growing in planters adjacent to the playground.

During hands-in-the-soil lessons about gardening, children also are learning about science, leadership and nurturing the planet, one carrot at a time.

At this Medford school, which recently earned the top 2013 Oregon Sustainable School Award, the student garden is sown into the curriculum and is one part of an encompassing practice to live green.

Some of the herbs and vegetables are used in after-school cooking classes and may soon be served with snacks and lunches.

But the garden is about more than just filling tummies.

On the days when the first- through sixth-graders taste and then vote for their favorite pulled-from-the-ground edible — today, the choices are lettuce leaves, radishes and onions — the older kids count the votes.

As they studied in math class, they then create a chart ranking the produce's popularity — onions are in last place — and they hang the chart on the bulletin board for the whole school to see.

On another board in the school's sunlit atrium is an art project, a flower made of construction paper. Written on the petals are younger children's science statements that plants need soil, sun and air to grow.

In the center, a girl practicing language-arts skills has printed that she likes the "brocule" plant because it's "prete."

"The garden enhances young people's learning and well-being," says Principal Kelly Soter, "and provides opportunities for participation and positive contributions to the school and community."

The well-maintained campus garden is just one of the reasons Jackson Elementary was named the winner of this year's Sustainable School Award, which was open to Oregon's K-12 schools.

The school was honored for practicing and teaching sustainability on a century-old campus that was rebuilt in 2009 and designed to be energy efficient.

Inside, programmed skylights control the desired amount of natural light, and sensored lights, and computers automatically turn off when not in use. Other improvements reduce water use and the amount of disposable materials.

Many of the school's purchases also impressed the Sustainable School Award judges. The cafeteria staff makes meals using as many locally grown ingredients as possible — all of the milk and bread come from Southern Oregon — and the maintenance crew uses cleaning supplies without harmful chemical compounds.

Other schools have adapted eco-friendly practices, but here 99 percent of the children live within a mile of the campus, so they can walk, bike or carpool to school. This minimizes transportation's impact, says Soter, who adds that the school operates with only one bus.

In and outside of classrooms, students study ways to be safe and healthy, which is part of the sustainability criteria. Kids can redeem credits they earn by exercising for prizes.

Instructors and volunteers assist student-run recycling and litter-patrol programs, and promote other activities that help kids see that they can positively impact their community.

The judges also acknowledged two Portland schools and one in Lake Oswego for either health or sustainability education programs.

But Oregon Deputy Superintendent Rob Saxton and Sustainable Oregon Schools Initiative Executive Director Lori Stole praised Jackson Elementary for its across-the-board sustainability initiatives, from the environmentally friendly building to monthly parent-volunteer nights hosted by the Parent-Teacher Organization and Latino Parent Group.

The year-old garden, however, is the newest piece and a place for children to put their studies into action.

Jackson Elementary once had a long-forgotten school garden on a remote part of the campus. Last spring, a new garden was constructed near the playground with the help of nonprofit children's organizations Rogue Valley Farm to School and Kids Unlimited.

Ashland landscape architect Laurie Sager gave her time to map out the new garden, and landscaper Travis Stumpff of GreenTime Landscape in Ashland also pitched in. Construction, fencing, irrigation and gardening supply businesses also donated to get the garden producing.

Tanya Oleson, the school's Farm to School garden coordinator, has seen children blossom into conscientious plant growers and healthy eaters because they have joined what she calls the Lunchtime Garden Club.

"The children all get along in the garden," she says. "They say 'excuse me' here. And when we are using a shallow wheelbarrow to collect weeds, several of them hold each of the handles of the wheelbarrow to keep both sides level."

Children — about 10 at a time — enter the garden through a gate. As they listen to Oleson's instructions, other students who have not yet been given a garden pass hang over the fence, watching as if tuned to the Garden Channel while their classmates dig into the soil.

On a recent day, first- and second-graders were getting a lesson in salad making. They heard that this organic garden has "clean" dirt, with no fertilizer or chemicals. Next, they learned that onions and other plants make seeds that can be planted the next year.

Then they were shown green beans, tomatoes and snap peas.

"Strawberries are a big hit," says Oleson.

Finally, the kids were encouraged to reach over the vegetable beds to search for a bright, red radish.

Second-grader Kenyon Graves wanted to take a bite out of his radish right away. But, as instructed, he waited in line to first scrub it with a brush, wash it in a bowl of water, rinse it off, and then walk it over to the table. There, Oleson sliced it and spread the slivers on top of his salad bowl.

When first-grader Arlett Morales stared at her salad, she thought she saw a bug. But it was just a darker-green part of the lettuce.

"Look at the colors, fresh out of the garden," says Claudia Chavez, who works in the campus health center. "Think of all the nutrients."

Some of the older children have formed a garden committee. They meet once a week to weed or think of new projects.

They recently started a compost project. Kids in five classrooms put orange peels and other scraps into buckets, which are collected and brought to the garden's mounting compost heap.

For the school's carnival, the garden committee sold tomato plants in gallon pots for $2, sunflower seedlings for 25 cents, and other plants they raised and transplanted in the garden.

"We promote their creativity," says Oleson. "We try to help them practice leadership, and we make the garden a fun place to be."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or